Wednesday 8 April 2015

Berlin Festtage (7) – WEDO/Barenboim: Debussy, Boulez, and Ravel, 4 April 2015


Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune
Boulez – Dérive 2
Ravel – Rapsodie espagnole
Alborado del gracioso
Pavane pour une infant défunte

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

All good things must come to an end – though not, we can now be sure, the recent near-exponential growth of interest in Pierre Boulez’s music. The always-unpersuasive claims about the ‘box office’, ‘elitism’, and so on have, this year, already been shown to be utter nonsense. The Barbican sold out tickets for many of its ‘Total Immersion’ events; here again, a concert in which Boulez’s music made up half the programme sold out. What his music, like that of any other great composer, needs is at the very least excellent, committed performances. That was always Boulez’s claim concerning the music of the Second Viennese School, and how he showed that to be true! Now subsequent conductors are doing the same for his music, no conductor more so than Daniel Barenboim. The greatest Beethoven conductor alive, the founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: that is a ‘name’ who will bring people to Boulez, and indeed one who uncontestably has. My Festtage events thus went out on a high.

First came Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune. Barenboim did not conduct the beautifully played opening solo (others were equally beautiful), simply letting Guy Eshed get on with it. The baton was only lifted for the entry of the orchestra. In a sense, that gesture – and that lack thereof – prepared the way, consciously or otherwise, for the dialectic between freedom and determinism that lies at the heart of so much of Boulez’s work. This was, like Boulez’s VPO recording, a sultry account, almost as if Ravel’s Spanish sun were already risen, but not at the expense of the ambiguity that makes Debussy Debussy, and which may indeed be his most important legacy. I was struck by the difficult-to-pin-down French sound Barenboim elicited from the West-Eastern Divan, translucency not the least of its qualities. Gorgeous string vibrato was equally welcome.

Of all of Boulez’s music, I perhaps still find Dérive 2 the hardest to grasp as a whole. I am in no doubt that the fault lies with me, having no truck with a dismissal I heard in conversation with a distinguished composer, who described it as ‘culinary’ – surely an insult worthy of the young Boulez himself. Barenboim has said he considers it perhaps Boulez’s finest work, and many others are especially drawn to it. My journey towards understanding certainly seemed to be sped up by this fine performance from Barenboim and his players, who exhibited still greater confidence than they had in their Proms account in 2012. Whatever the ‘authenticists’ might say, and no one has been fuller of scorn for them than Boulez, one is far likely to play Beethoven better, once one has the music under one’s skin; the same is true of Boulez. Barenboim’s exposition of the opening material was clear and pregnant with possibility, faithful in the best sense to the work, just like his Debussy or indeed his Beethoven. (How I wish he would conduct Pelléas!) The uncredited marimba player’s early contributions were a particular joy, drawing me in to the musical argument. Michael Wendeberg, whom I heard as piano soloist earlier in the week, was, for all his excellence, very much an ensemble player here, his exemplary contributions clearly drawing on his experience as a member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Counterpoint, though not so much sonority, led me to think of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, of which I have never heard a finer performance than under Boulez here in Berlin. Ebb and flow sometimes seemed to draw more upon the composer’s Debussyan inheritance – or was that perhaps the canny programming? It need not, arguably should not, be either/or. At other times, a more ‘mechanistic’ spirit was manifest, the contrast putting me in mind of Boulez’s early – and, in their orchestral form, ongoing – Notations. A wonderful bassoon solo (Mor Biron) seemed momentarily to evoke the opening of The Rite of Spring, but whilst ‘derivation’ in Boulez’s sense may be the name of the game, there is absolutely nothing ‘derivative’ in the pejorative sense to this work. There is nothing enigmatic to the audible ‘derivation’, and this performance helpfully underlined its achievement. If I still find the work a little daunting, I do so less than I did; and my immediate reaction was that to hear again, preferably immediately, such a performance would bring me closer still.

Ravel’s Spanish works were the material of the second half, just as they had been for the WEDO’s Proms concert last year. The Rapsodie espagnole proceeded in quasi-symphonic style; certainly there was great purpose to the performance, though not in any sense at the expense of sonority and general atmosphere. The ‘Prélude á la nuit’ reprised and extended, made personal to Ravel, the sultriness we had heard in Debussy. It was – and not in an Ann Widdecombe/Michael Howard sense – very much ‘of the night’. The brilliance of the opening of the ‘Malagueña’ was owed in no small part to the excellence of the double basses. A darkened kaleidoscope revealed all manner of riches. Quiet insistence of rhythm marked the ‘Habanera’, preparing the way for a gorgeous celebration of sound in the closing ‘Feria’. Alborado del gracioso received a sparkling performance, colour and rhythm working their Ravelian alchemy. As at the Proms, Barenboim rarely conducted – at least with his baton. Pavane pour une infante défunte was arguably a little too languid at times, but that is to nitpick, for it remained a beautifully played performance. Boléro proceeded on its way for quite some time without Barenboim raising his baton. It was a showcase for the orchestra, but no mere showcase. Most important, the orchestra, if I am to go on the stolen glances between desks, clearly enjoyed itself. As did we; as, I think, did Barenboim. As, I think, would have Boulez. The now-inevitable Carmen excerpts offered brilliant, generous encores.